Review: Room is a harrowing tale that resonates during a pandemic

Emma Donoghue's adaptation of her novel works beautifully onstage, and the songs capture heightened moments with sensitivity


ROOM adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel, with songs by Cora Bissett and Kathryn Joseph (Mirvish/Grand Theatre/Covent Garden Productions). Runs to May 8. $59-$129. mirvish.com. Rating: NNNN


Emma Donoghue’s harrowing stage adaptation of her award-winning novel Room premiered in the UK in 2017 and was set to open in London, Ontario’s Grand Theatre in March 2020. Which means it was written well before COVID-19. But the play’s confined, claustrophobic setting – much of it is set in a single, cramped room – and its sensitive look at grief and trauma resonate especially well after we’ve all gone through two years of isolation.

Ma (Alexis Gordon) and her five-year-old son Jack (Lucien Duncan-Reid, who alternates with Levi Dombokah) live in a small rectangular room, dark except for a lamp and a skylight, which they can’t reach. Their days are pretty much the same. They wake up, eat breakfast, exercise, play games, read, watch TV, wash up and go to bed. Strangely enough, Jack sleeps in a wardrobe. And after he’s asleep Ma drops her calm demeanour and desperately presses buttons on a security system on the door, frantically trying to get out.

(If you’ve read Donoghue’s book or seen the award-winning 2015 movie, you know what happens. Otherwise, be warned: there are some spoilers ahead.)

It turns out Ma was abducted by a man (Ashley Wright) and has been locked in this room – which is in fact a shed – for seven years. The man often visits her at night. Jack, who is five (do the math), knows him only as Old Nick and is told to avoid him. Lately Ma is worried she and Jack will never escape. So she constructs a plan.

What sets this stage version apart from the movie is its theatricality. Jack is an imaginative kid whose entire life consists of what’s in this room, and Donoghue and director Cora Bissett show what he’s thinking in various ways. For one thing, Jack has an older alter ego, Super Jack (Brandon Michael Arrington), who mimics his movements and often articulates his thoughts. For another, we see Jack’s drawings and writings scrawled across Lily Arnold’s set in fascinating projections (designed by Andrzej Goulding).

And then there are the songs. Early marketing for the show called it “a musical,” but since then the producers have come to describe it as “a play with songs.” This was probably a good move, since the word “musical” evokes lighter fare. The songs in Room (written by Kathryn Joseph and director Bissett) are sung when characters have no spoken words for what’s happening to them; for instance, when Ma is being raped by Old Nick, she dissociates from herself and expresses her torment in song, the sounds of the squeaking mattress providing a horrific rhythmic beat.

There are fewer than half a dozen songs, but they always come at heightened moments and provide both the characters and the audience with a sense of emotional release.

Despite a technical glitch last night, Arnold’s rotating set works well in providing changing perspectives on what’s going on. One of the most effective moments comes when Jack hides from Old Nick in the wardrobe, and the set turns around to show you him (and Super Jack) eavesdropping on what’s going on in the room. Bonnie Beecher’s lighting and John Gzowski’s sound both contribute to the show’s ever-shifting moods.

While Donoghue’s writing and Bissett’s direction are sharp, the show wouldn’t work without a talented cast. Duncan-Reid is a find, handling his sizeable role with unselfconscious ease. Arrington is a physically nimble and graceful presence as Super Jack, although his songs in the weaker second act sound a little repetitive. Stewart Arnott and Tracey Ferencz bring subtlety to their roles.

But it’s Gordon – a frequent star at Stratford and Shaw – who impresses most in this treacherously demanding part. Her Ma is asked to go to some hellish places, relive her trauma and put on a brave face for her child. Gordon’s total immersion in the role results in her strongest and most moving performance to date.

Like all fine art, Room reflects the world back at you – much of both the humour and profundity of the play comes from young Jack’s expanding sense of his surroundings. At its heart, though, Room is essentially a story of survival and love – something we all need to hear more of at this time.

@glennsumi

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